A little look at… the Nanashi no Game series

I have a particular soft spot for portable horror titles, so it’s a little surprising that it’s taken me until 2015 to play through the much-mooned-over Nanashi no Game, er, games for the DS – so long that the companion DSi Ware games and iOS app have been and gone, and both games been fully fan translated too! Still, better late than never, right? Especially with games that seem to be a permanent fixture on countless “Why weren’t these released outside Japan?” lists.

Both games are very similar bar a few minor additions in Me, so this blog post will talk about them both without making any particular distinctions. The plot for both can be boiled down to “Like The Ring But With A Game” – according to urban legend anyone who downloads the cursed “Nameless game” in question dies after exactly seven days. Of course it’d be a bit naff if it really was just a hoax so as you’d expect your friends and others around you start dropping like flies and the game becomes a race against time to solve the mystery before you find yourself suffering the same fate.

Nanashi no Game series (58)Nanashi no Game series (45)Nanashi no Game series (78)

While playing the DS is held in two ways – when in the Nameless Game or using the “TS” (your in-game DS-alike) the DS is held in the usual manner, but when exploring the real world it’s held vertically, like a book. In theory this creates a distinct break between reality and the Nameless Game as well as giving the developer more screen space to work with when using 3D, but when this means having to push up on the d-pad and keep your stylus pressed on the center of the screen to do something as basic as run in a straight line you wish they’d have settled on something less experimental instead. I’ll make no bones about it – the control scheme’s awful to use, uncomfortable to hold, and adds nothing to the game – and these problems are exacerbated by a plodding 3D engine that makes the original Resident Evil’s tank movement characters look like Strider Hiryu on a sugar rush.

The cursed 2D game section doesn’t fare much better, with too many “cheats” that make it look inauthentic to anyone who’s ever played a real 8-bit RPG. The “best” example probably being the “corruption” effecting the game – it’s just a generic repeated overlay that pops up when you walk around and isn’t going to fool anyone. In fact it’s not until one particular later area of the second game that you encounter anywhere that you could actually believe was suffering from graphical corruption, and that’s a real shame because it’s a mess of red-on-black wrongness that looks as intimidating and unsettling as a cursed game that’s become hell-bent on ending your life should do. This all might sound like a bit of a nit-pick but as the Nameless Game in question is the defining point of both games it’s very disappointing to see it done in such a half-hearted way and hurts the game as a whole.

Nanashi no Game series (19)Nanashi no Game series (26)Nanashi no Game series (13)

It’s not all bad though – receiving TS messages from “####”with the message content “Die.” can be more than a little creepy, as can receiving helpful messages from people you know are definitely dead already. However these is somewhat ruined by the rigid gameplay structure that often forces you stand on the spot, read your TS messages/play the Nameless Game at highly specific points, then resume your real world investigations after you’ve finished doing exactly as much TS-ing as the designer wanted you to do. This turns what could have been an intricately woven light/dark world style mechanic into nothing more than “Look! Look! Weird game time for you now!”. In fairness the Nameless Game does become a freely accessible dark mirror of the real world half way through the second game, for one chapter, and then instantly squanders the endless possibilities of two interwoven realities by having you solve one single mindless non-puzzle, over and over and over.

Ah, we haven’t got to the enemies yet! It wouldn’t be a horror game without something trying to kill you, and in Nanashi no Game that means avoiding enemies known as “Regrets” (if it looks like a ghost, sounds like a ghost and acts like a ghost… it’s a bloody ghost, Square-Enix) – menacing apparitions that can’t ever be injured, distracted, or stopped – and always kill instantly on contact. Ghostly behaviour falls into three patterns across both games – run trudge in a straight line towards you, patrol a room in a strictly defined circuit and only react if you happen to bump into them (instantly killing you), and stand perfectly still doing absolutely nothing at all. Yes, really. This means in practise ghosts act more like “wrong ends” than traditional enemies as the outcome of any encounter is always a totally binary “completely fine”/or “completely dead” – which means that when they appear you’re more likely to roll your eyes and wonder which door you’re supposed to escape through this time than feel any fear.

Nanashi no Game series (4)Nanashi no Game series (46)Nanashi no Game series (84)

More than anything Nanashi no Game’s biggest disappointment is that a lot of the time it’s very nearly a good series, and when you’re first-person running away from a blood-splattered killer who always happens to be one step ahead, or when ghosts call out the name you entered for your save file, or when you’re visiting your recently-deceased friend in a virtual graveyard it’s a tense and captivating experience and shows how it could have been something really special. Unfortunately the games go and spoil it for themselves with far too many “gotcha” ghost encounters, frequent jump scares that are always a minor variation of “Thing falls over nearby then nothing happens” or “TV turns on and nothing happens”, and it’s all capped off with a final boss battle (!) that requires you to repeat a very tedious stealth section twice (!!), then successfully dodge a fast ghost twenty times (!!!) to win. The Nanashi no Game series is a masterclass in how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and while not irredeemably awful they are easily outshone by a broad range of similar titles already available in English.